McCandless mom Schlemmer's past actions seen in different light after murder charge
Authorities and members of the North Park Church community assumed it was an accident when Laurel Michelle Schlemmer struck and injured her two youngest children with her car last year.
Now, with one of them dead, the other clinging to life and Schlemmer charged with murder, they're not so sure.
Allegheny County police will look again at the incident. They accuse Schlemmer, 40, of McCandless of drowning her youngest son, Luke, 3, and nearly drowning a brother, Daniel, 6, in a bathtub in their home on Saratoga Drive on Tuesday while her oldest son was at school.
“At the time, they didn't have any reason, and still to right now, we don't have any reason to believe it was anything other than an accident,” county police Superintendent Charles Moffatt said. Detectives obtained the report on the April 16, 2013, incident and a Sept. 5, 2009, incident in Ross in which Schlemmer left a toddler unattended in a hot car, as part of their investigation into the homicide, he said.
Schlemmer told Northern Regional police she accidentally hit the two boys while moving her vehicle at the home of her parents, Donald and Virginia Ludwig, on Aviary Court in Marshall, police Chief Robert Amann said. A woman outside that home on Wednesday said the family would not speak to reporters.
UPMC Passavant-Cranberry contacted police to report the incident, Amann said, but he couldn't say how seriously the boys were hurt. Officers didn't see the children because Schlemmer took them to the hospital, and staff there transferred them to Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville for treatment, he said.
Workers from the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families conducted an assessment of the family at a hospital, state Department of Public Welfare spokeswoman Kait Gillis said. Police and hospital staff determined the incident was an accident, she said, and CYF workers found no signs of abuse or neglect and closed the investigation.
“We acknowledge that this is a devastating situation to have occurred,” Gillis said of the most recent incident. “It's a horrible situation for any family to be in.”
“It's inconceivable,” said the Rev. Dan Hendley of North Park Church, where the Schlemmers are members. “You can pastor for 500 years, and you're not likely to run into a situation like this one.”
He said he had dinner with Schlemmer, known to friends by her middle name Michelle, and her husband Mark at their home to help them cope after Michelle Schlemmer hit the children with her vehicle. He described the injuries as “orthopedic.”
“Of course, we all presumed then that it was entirely accidental,” said Hendley, a pastor of 30 years who has been at the McCandless church for the past five years.
The church held a private prayer service on Wednesday evening for the church family to grieve.
The pastor's daughter, Sharon Hendley, 24, of McCandless said she took adult Sunday school classes with Schlemmer and that she was “freaked out” when she heard about the drowning. She said that Schlemmer told her recently that she was experiencing “emotions up and down.”
Shaler resident Jim Ludwig said about 100 people attended the service. He said he would see Schlemmer coming to church each week with one son in her arms and the others trailing behind her.
“It's just a tragedy without explanation,” said Ludwig, 62.
Schlemmer told investigators that she drowned Luke and tried to drown Daniel because “crazy voices” told her she'd be a better mother to her oldest child if the other two “weren't around,” according to court records. Moffatt said Daniel remained in critical condition in Children's Hospital.
“That's always going to be a question,” Moffatt said: “What could possibly make somebody do this to those children?”
Child left in hot car
Ross police said Michelle Schlemmer left a toddler in a hot car with the windows partly down at Ross Park Mall for about 20 minutes on Sept. 5, 2009. A heat gun showed it was 112 degrees inside the vehicle, Detective Brian Kohlhepp said. The unidentified toddler wasn't injured. She admitted her mistake to the officer at the scene, he said, and pleaded guilty to a summary offense of leaving a child unattended in a vehicle. Police did not notify CYF of the incident.
“The child was in no immediate danger,” Kohlhepp said. “She agreed with the officer that it was a lapse in judgment. It wasn't something that seemed like it was intentionally harming the child.”
Marc Cherna, director of the county's Department of Human Services, declined to comment specifically about the Schlemmer case.
“Generally, when we get a call and do an investigation, we rely heavily on other sources,” Cherna said. “When a child is injured and in a hospital, we rely on the doctors and police if they're doing an investigation.”
The case will trigger an investigation by the Allegheny County child fatality/near-fatality review team, made up of doctors, police, child welfare workers and others who look at what happened and whether anything can be done to prevent similar incidents.
Dr. Mary Carrasco, chairwoman of the review team and director of A Child's Place at Mercy at Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, said about 50 percent of the child fatality and near-fatality cases statewide have had prior involvement with CYF services.
“There is a review of the whole process and a review of what happened in the past, to look at intervention points that potentially could have prevented this kind of situation,” Carrasco said. “Sometimes there aren't things we find that could be done, but there are often things that could be tweaked a little bit.”
Michelle Schlemmer is jailed without bond on charges of homicide, attempted homicide, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, endangering the welfare of children and tampering with evidence.
Schlemmer is scheduled to appear for a court hearing on Thursday, when a judge is expected to order a behavioral evaluation and deny her bail.
‘No signs of any of this'
Michelle Schlemmer, a 1992 graduate of North Allegheny High School and a former teacher, worked at Dorseyville Middle School and Kerr Elementary School in the Fox Chapel Area School District from 1999 to 2004, a district spokeswoman said. She married Mark Schlemmer in a ceremony at Grove City College, her alma mater, on July 9, 2005. A marriage license says he was born in Abington in Montgomery County, and she was born in Morgantown, W.Va.
Her husband could not be reached for comment.
“They were a wonderful couple, strong Christians,” said the Rev. Bob Shull, a former North Park Church associate pastor who officiated the wedding. Shull is now pastor at Hickory United Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Washington County.
Shull described Michelle Schlemmer as a good wife and mother, while Mark Schlemmer, an actuary with Highmark, took an active role in a North Park men's ministry that met once a week, went on retreats and participated in other fellowship activities.
“There were no signs of any of this,” said Shull, who continued receiving Christmas cards from the Schlemmers with photos of their children after he left North Park in 2010.
“Only God knows exactly what went on.”
Staff writers Debra Erdley, Tawnya Panizzi and Kelsey Shea contributed to this report. Tom Fontaine and Margaret Harding are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Fontaine at 412-320-7847 or firstname.lastname@example.org and Harding at 412-380-8519 or email@example.com.